Reined Cow Horse Overview

If Western riding had a triathlon, reined cow horse would be it. This exciting sport features stock horses performing in three distinct events with scores going toward a composite score to win. Each event is derived from ranching duties, but reined cow horse has evolved to showcase the horse’s athletic ability at a high level. Let’s dive in to learn more about this showdown between the cow and the cow horse.

What is Reined Cow Horse?

Based on the horsemanship and training style of California vaquero cowboys, reined cow horse consists of three events:

Herd Work: This is also known as cutting. The horse and rider have 2½ minutes to separate one cow from a group of cattle and keep it from returning to the herd using body language. The horse and rider will work cows one at a time to demonstrate the horse’s cow sense and courage while holding a tough cow, all while working on a loose rein. Penalties include losing a cow back to the herd, working a cow for not enough time, only working easy cows, or a lack of a good attitude in the horse.

Phillip Ralls and Call Me Mitch in the herd work, or cutting portion, of reined cow horse at the World's Greatest Horseman
Herd Work: Phillip Ralls and Call Me Mitch, 2023 World’s Greatest Horseman Champion, showing in a bridle. Photo courtesy National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA)

Rein Work: This is a traditional reining pattern performed at a lope, with fast and slow circles each direction, lead changes, spins, backing, sliding stops and rollbacks, showcasing the horse’s ability to be willingly guided. The reining pattern follows one of several pre-published patterns, all with the same required elements in different combinations. Judges reward a high degree of difficulty such as speed and smoothness, a horse that appears willing to be guided by the rider, and correct maneuvers. Penalties can include any deviation from the pattern or the horse seeming to resist rider cues.

Clay Volmer and Ricato Suave in reining
Rein Work: Clay Volmer and Ricato Suave, 2022 Eastern Derby Champion, showing in a hackamore. Photo courtesy NRCHA

Cow Work: This is also known as fence work. Here, the horse and rider have 2½ minutes to work a single cow while boxing, which is turning the cow back and forth at one end of the arena; going down the fence, driving the cow down the long end of the arena and turning it once each direction; and circling, driving the cow in a tight circle once each direction. The goal is to show how the horse can maintain control of the cow throughout the performance.

Corey Cushing and Hesa Dual Bet competing in the cow work portion of reined cow horse
Cow Work: Corey Cushing and Hesa Dual Bet, 2021 Western Derby Champion, showing in a snaffle. Photo courtesy NRCHA

The National Reined Cow Horse Association website says the horse with the most controlled cow work, with the highest degree of difficulty and the best form, scores the highest. Penalties can include losing control of the cow, failing to execute any part of the required maneuvers, or falling off the horse.


Each event is scored using a plus and minus system for each maneuver, and if penalties are incurred, they are deducted from the overall score. When the horse and rider enter the arena, they’re starting with a score of 70, and that score is considered “average.” For each maneuver, the judge awards a plus score for an above-average maneuver, a zero for a correct but average maneuver, or minus for a below-average maneuver. If a horse and rider earn a score above 70, they earned credit during their performance. If it is below 70, they have incurred a penalty or have performed a below-average maneuver somewhere in the pattern.

Major events have five judges. For each horse and rider, the high score and low score are thrown out, and the three remaining scores are added together to reach the final score. The NRCHA site says for example, if a horse scored a 219, he averaged a 73 from each judge.

The Organizations

The NRCHA was founded in 1949 to promote the sport of reined cow horse. The American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, and Appaloosa Horse Club include a variation of reined cow horse called working cow horse, but do not include herd work in their competition, only rein work (also called dry work) and cow work—and some divisions only require boxing in the cow work. Not all NRCHA divisions require herd work, and some divisions limit cow work to boxing.

Why is Reined Cow Horse Popular?

Callie McCarthy-Boevers, director of media and communications at NRCHA, says the event is thrilling, yet accessible.

“The reined cow horse is one of the most exciting sports in the Western performance industry,” says McCarthy-Boevers. “We have incredible athletes and amazing fans that create an electric environment, which makes for a welcoming and exciting atmosphere for newcomers. Whether you’re looking to get in the show pen or just a fan of the sport, the cow horse family is ready to help you get started.”

Things to Know

A reined cow horse is trained over several years to become a finished bridle horse. Many young reined cow horses are started in a snaffle bit with a D or O ring and broken mouthpiece. Horses can compete in a snaffle their 3-year-old year. Riders use two hands on the reins with a snaffle.

As a 4- and 5-year-old, a reined cow horse can compete in a hackamore—headgear consisting of a rawhide or leather bosal, a headstall, and a closed rein called a mecate. Riders use two hands.

Once a horse turns 6, it’s no longer eligible to be shown two-handed, NRCHA says. For one year, they can be shown in a two-rein setup, with a bridle on top of a thinner version of a hackamore and mecate. The rider holds both sets of reins: the closed rawhide romal attached to the bridle bit, and a thinner mecate rein connected to the hackamore.

By the time a horse in cow horse training is 7 years old, it can be shown as a bridle horse, wearing a bridle with a ported mouthpiece and shanked bit, along with traditional romal reins or split reins.

Major Reined Cow Horse Events

The NRCHA holds four major events each year, with the biggest being the Snaffle Bit Futurity in October in Fort Worth, Texas. AQHA, APHA and ApHC each have working cow horse classes at local and national horse shows.

Getting Started

Want to try reined cow horse yourself? You can get a copy of the NRCHA Rule Book at

NRCHA competition has a variety of divisions for rider or horse level of experience, age and other criteria. Find more info, a calendar of affiliate (local) reined cow horse shows and more at

This article appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Western Life Today magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Abigail Boatwright

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